DETROIT – Space tourism is ready to take off and it could create lots of new opportunities for automotive engineers, George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, tells the SAE World Congress here.

The commercial space tourism company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson should start commercial flights in late 2013 or early 2014 and already has 580 reservations for its $200,000, 2.5-hour suborbital joyride, Whitesides says.

The company currently is readying two spacecraft. One is a reusable rocket-powered glider designed for tourism, with room for six passengers and two pilots. The other vehicle is a non-reusable rocket designed to launch small satellites into orbit.

Between the two crafts, Virgin Galactic could be making hundreds or even thousands of flights per year, Whitesides says. His company, along with ventures such as Elon Musk’s Space X, which has a similar business model, is creating what Whitesides calls “the industrialization of space.” That means mass-producing vehicles and precision parts, a foreign concept to the space industry.

“My guess is that the space world is going to start hiring folks from the automotive sector because they’re going to need the experience you have with high-rate, high-reliability manufacturing. That’s something in the world of space we haven’t needed because we were operating in the paradigm of one flight a year or five flights a year,” Whitesides says.

Another reason he sees a fit with automotive is that Virgin Galactic’s satellite launcher is similar in size and complexity to a large truck, weighing about 30,000 lbs. (13,600 kg).

“We need to be producing hundreds if not thousands of these (space) vehicles per year. And in the world of space, we have no idea of how to do that,” Whitesides says.

“That is one critical area that we are looking to the automotive sector for. How do we take what you have learned over the years and apply it to a new role where we need to think of a high rate of manufacturing, whether for space ships or launch vehicles, and how to meet the high standards you have in a very cost-conscious way.”

Whitesides, previously chief of staff for the National Aeronautics and Space Admin., says the space industry is undergoing massive changes, transitioning from the Apollo model where 500,000 people created one vehicle to a business where small teams of scientists and engineers can create a space ship for as little as $30 million.

Virgin Galactic’s business model is relatively low cost because it does not use an expensive launch pad or huge booster rockets to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull. Instead, the space vehicle is attached to a specially designed airplane that flies it to an altitude of about 52,000 ft. (15,850 m) and then releases it. A relatively small rocket then powers the vehicle through the atmosphere into space.

For the $200,000 ticket, a Virgin Galactic space tourist gets “an experience of a lifetime” that lasts four days, Whitesides says. It starts with a trip to the company’s $200 million spaceport in New Mexico for several days of flight training. Then passengers board the spaceship that resembles a small corporate jet and is attached to the launch airplane.

When the spaceship is released, passengers experience about two seconds of weightlessness before the rocket engine ignites and propels the craft straight up for about 65 seconds.

After the engine cuts off, passengers are free to release their seatbelts, float about the cabin and “enjoy the wonders of space” for several minutes, Whitesides says.

The spacecraft uses small booster motors to reenter the atmosphere and glide back to Earth where it lands like a plane.

The company is working on developing a larger spacecraft and eventually lowering ticket prices. “We want to change the game from a period where only 10 people a year go into space to a time when thousands or tens of thousands of people go to space,” Whitesides says.

dwinter@wardsauto.com